Edward Bernays: The Best Advice I Never Took

» Posted by on May 21, 2012 in Marketing | 2 comments

Our friend Jim Joseph wrote a blog article about Eddie Bernays recently, and it reminded me of an experience I had a long time ago, at the tender age of 17.  One of those conversations you can remember, more than 20 years later, in perfect detail.  So, having mixed myself a Tom Collins in honor of my uncle Eliot, truly one of the most charming and intelligent men I’ve ever met, and ordered a copy of Bernays’ Propaganda on Amazon, here it is.

Eddie Bernays is commonly known as  the “father of modern public relations.”  Using ideas about crowd psychology, he worked first as a press agent and later for Woodrow Wilson during World War I, with the Committee for Public Information.  To counteract the negative connotation that the word “Propaganda” had after the German war campaigns, he was among the first to promote the use of the term “Public Relations.”

“I’m 97 years old, and I’m Sigmund Freud’s nephew.”

Those were the first words Eddie Bernays said, chuckling at my surprise, as I sat down beside him.  I had been sent over by my great-uncle Eliot Spalding, editor of the Cambridge Chronicle for 50 years, that patient and sweet older relative who was suffering through having me, a 17 year old Harvard summer student, as a roommate.  He had taken me that evening to a cocktail party in his Cambridge neighborhood, and when we had arrived and he’d retrieved drinks for both of us (Tom Collins, as always, for him, Diet Coke for me) pointed out Mr. Bernays.  “Go sit next to him, ” he told me.  “He’s really very interesting.”

So I did.  And he was.

At 97 years old, Eddie Bernays had lost none of his wit, nor his humor.  Unable to move around much at that time, he was seated at one end of the couch, drink at his elbow, his cane having been moved out of sight by the unobtrusive male nurse who accompanied him.  Small and bright eyed, he was elegantly dressed and smiling.  Although I didn’t quite realize what a personage I was meeting until later in life – at one point I saw his name referenced in a Rex Stout novel, and bothered to look him up – Sigmund Freud’s nephew got my attention, and then gave me some advice.

Having accurately assessed my age (too young) intelligence (not brilliant) and interests (too few to have a proper conversation with, probably) he got right to the point.

“What,” he asked me, “Do you want to do with yourself?”  It was a serious question, not the desultory type most adults ask a high school senior, and I replied, seriously, that I wanted to open an art gallery.

He thought for a moment.  “Very well,” he said.  “Here’s what you do.”  And he proceeded to outline an extremely clear and lucid plan for success, in about five minutes.  It went like this:

1) Get some letterhead and business cards printed establishing your credentials as a freelance journalist.

2) Contact an art journal and tell them that you are writing an article on “Top 3 Steps to Break into the Business”, and that you’ll be submitting it to them when you’ve finished.

3) Write to the top five galleries in the country.  Inform them that you are an author writing an article for the above mentioned journal, and ask them for the 10 steps they took to get into the business.

4) When you receive each reply (this being before the days of email, he assumed correspondence by mail,) note each one of the ten steps on a separate index card.  You should have 50 cards at the end.  Sort these into piles.

5) Take the three thickest piles, representing the three steps most often mentioned.

6) Do these three things.

PS: Don’t forget to actually write the article.

And there you have it.  I was too dumbfounded to respond.  Another guest came over to speak with him, someone brought him another cocktail, my uncle kindly introduced me around the room.  All of those brilliant and elegant Cambridge people – the British hosts who had been responsible for working on the famous German Enigma code, the author who had written a charming novel about the local mailman, the Harvard professors and the sports writers and the scientists – smiled beautifully and refused to let me feel awkward.

I have thought about that conversation often.  It was a  formula for success, which I feel quite certain would have worked, had I been smart enough to follow it.   I looked up the address of an art journal.  I bought a New Yorker magazine and looked at the names of the galleries advertised.  But I never got the letterhead printed.

I went off to the University of Chicago, and studied art history, and then got a sensible job in computers.  But sometimes I wonder…

Anyone know of a good art journal in need of a freelance author?





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  1. Love this commentary! I too remember similar moments with Eliot – and often wonder how much could be accomplished with the simplicity of follow-through!

  2. Such charisma and smarts, too bad he applied it being one of the alltime biggest villains in the history of the species.

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